What if…?

How is it possible that it’s already mid-August? Five months ago, we sent everyone home expecting that we would return to our offices in May. Then, June. Then, July.

And now … who knows?

We talk about the fact that the pandemic has irrevocably changed the way we work and live, but I’m not sure that we’ve truly acknowledged nor accepted that things will never be the same.

Yet, that’s exactly what history teaches us.

Many have called COVID-19 a “plague.” But, what about that most famous of plagues: the so-called “Black Death” that killed as many as 200 million people throughout Europe and North Africa in the fourteenth century? Bubonic plague, or Yersinia pestis, was a flea-borne bacterial disease that jumped from rodents to humans. Because the very poor lived in such close and filthy quarters, the epidemic spread quickly and mercilessly.

Like modern-day pandemics, the toll on the working class (we hadn’t yet coined the term “essential workers”) was dramatic. And, when the plague abated in about 1353, it changed society forever. Suddenly, there was a severe shortage of agricultural workers and other laborers. The feudal system — based on rich landowners and impoverished tenant farmers — had to reinvent itself. Workers could advocate for themselves, demand fair pay, and better work conditions. This was in essence the beginning of the end of “serfdom.”

Cities, which were disproportionately affected as the plague raged, had to be updated with more modern sewer and sanitation systems. The earliest concepts of public health arose along with hospitals and rudimentary medical research. The doctors who had bravely fought against the disease (in many cases, risking or sacrificing their lives) learned through its course the value of medical practices we take for granted now, like quarantining.

Skip ahead about six hundred years, and consider the so-called “Spanish Flu,” a politically motivated misnomer by the way. In 1918–1919, an estimated 20 to 50 million people died from this particularly contagious and deadly strain of influenza worldwide. In fact, it killed more people than World War I, which was finally coming to its end.

However, it also advanced theories and practices of modern medicine, like changes in hospital and personal protective equipment, and rehabilitation. Many countries, including the UK, France, and Germany adopted centralized healthcare systems. In the US, we saw the first employer-sponsored health insurance. And, health officials advised wearing masks to slow the spread of the disease, although many disagreed. (Doesn’t that sound familiar?) You might wonder if there was widespread relief when the pandemic of 1918–1919 was finally overcome. Who knows? Maybe that’s why the world was ready to party through the “roaring twenties.”

So, here we are in 2020, facing a new public health crisis. Let’s play a bit of “What if …. ?

What if … you never worked in a traditional office environment again? Would that change the way you think about where you live and why? The division between our work and home lives has never been quite so blurry, and there are distinct pros and cons to all the options: traditional offices; remote working; and hybrids. It will be fascinating to see whether businesses adopt more flexible approaches or redefine the norm altogether.

What if … our entire education system was disrupted and your children could attend classes with teachers, lecturers, and professors from all around the world? What if they learned in truly multi-cultural classes that included students from other countries? Would that shape the way they learn? And, what they learn? States and individual school districts are already facing the challenge of starting the 2020–2021 school year, and while many are going “back to school” and many others going “full remote,” some are coming up with more creative solutions. Again, how will this moment in time affect the future? It’s hard to say, but I’m hopeful that educators — some of the planet’s smartest and most compassionate people — will be allowed to help shape that future and just maybe come up with a new approach to education that’s more equitable and available to all.

And finally, what if … there is a silver lining to all of this? Or, maybe several? Scientists have pointed out how quickly the planet is healing itself as there’s less traffic, flights, and emissions. What if we’re able to address fully some of the biggest challenges we face? Global warming. Sustainability. Healthcare reform. Social justice for all. Could this be that sort of reckoning moment? It’s heartwarming to think that the perfect storm of disruption we are all living through could result in a better world. And, I don’t think I’m being overly optimistic.

After all, you know what happened after the Bubonic Plague?

The Renaissance.

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